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To set out one of the main Chinese arguments against democracy as it is practised elsewhere in the world is not to agree with it. Neither is it to say that the Chinese people will never have the chance to elect their own leaders. There are several conceivable paths to “democratic breakthrough” in China; and not all of them involve toppling the Communist Party or plunging the country into civil war. As Wei Jingsheng, China’s most famous dissident from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, told the author during a brief period of freedom in Beijing, “If foreigners can have democracy, so can Chinese. Chinese are just as good as foreigners.” Since this view was expressed with venom as well as conviction, Wei’s long years of indoctrination in prison, including protracted spells of solitary confinement, plainly failed to achieve their purpose.

Yet under Xi, the current is running the other way. A nationwide corruption campaign — as remarkable for the rivals it has removed who posed obstacles to Xi’s pursuit of supreme power as its commitment to clean government — has netted some genuine culprits. But it falls far short of genuine “reform”. Rather, it has strengthened the party and weakened the rule of law by delivering extra- or pre-judicial verdicts on the accused who lack voice either in the courtroom or the bar of public opinion. And despite the long list of senior party and military figures whom Xi has felled after they were found to have stashed away huge fortunes, most them consisting of state funds, the Chinese people still have no idea of the value of Xi’s own assets or those of his extended family. A reasonable guess would be that their value is not less than that ascribed (by critics) to Russian prime minister Dmitri Medvedev in the recent film that brought protesters onto the streets of Russia’s main cities. In this and many other respects, no Chinese would like to be outdone by a Russian. Doubtless, the reverse is also true.

Many lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, women’s advocates and religious believers, whether Christian, Muslim or (Tibetan) Buddhist, are also suffering under Xi Jinping. His response to what in many ways has been a remarkable liberalisation of social attitudes thanks to decades of rapid economic growth and, despite probably the toughest controls on the internet in the world outside of North Korea, global connectivity, has been to demand public loyalty to the party. Harsh punishment awaits those who dissent, be it ever so politely. Civil space, as the social scientists call it, has been decreasing in China since Xi assumed power. There is less room to “breathe” in a society in which the leader calls for wider, obligatory propagation of Marxism; universities are told to abandon “Western” teaching programmes; publishers of children’s books are instructed to print fewer works by J.K. Rowling and more by Chinese authors; and journalists are reminded, on pain of dismissal, that their primary loyalty must be to the party and conveying its message to the people.

Though they are lamentable, as many brave Chinese people point out in public, such measures cannot be considered in isolation. They are part of a bigger “China story” that, essentially, is one of national rejuvenation and growing global ascendancy. It is a turn of events about which many Chinese, young and old, educated and less-informed, urban sophisticate and rustic farmer, feel pride. Complaints about the current order are legion and outbursts of public anger rarely far away. But China’s growing weight in the world, evident across the entire spectrum from the country’s formidable trading power to its rising living standards; from advances in its territorial claims to the South China Sea to Beijing’s huge infrastructure investments right across Africa and Latin America, assuage some of the dissatisfaction provoked by the more egregious aspects of party rule at home.

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